Ethnic restaurants usually make a big deal about offering “authentic” cuisine. But truth be told, diners would likely be lukewarm to food that isn’t Americanized to some extent.
This is especially true when it comes to Mexican food. Travel off the tourist track south of the border and you’ll discover authentic means simple foods like rice, beans and tortillas.
At La Tiendita, however, they don’t use the word “authentic.” They prefer to call their brand of cooking home-style Mexican food.
Diners looking for dishes smothered in gooey cheese or fajitas sizzling on a red-hot platter will surely be disappointed. But for those interested in experiencing solid, satisfying food at jaw-dropping prices, La Tiendita is the place.
Originally started in 1991 as a grocery store - in English, La Tiendita means “little store” - owners Rachel and Carlos Maldonado experienced such success with their takeout food, the operation evolved into a full-fledged restaurant.
It relocated from the Garland district to North Division last fall, which expanded the seating considerably. There are now three booths and a half-dozen tables in the main room and more tables upstairs, where diners can watch the Spanishlanguage cable channel on a bigscreen television.
La Tiendita is not a fancy place. The dining room is filled with things that are for sale. Pinatas hang from the ceiling. There is a small selection of clothing, blankets and Spanish-language magazines. There is also a small grocery store on the upper level.
All this gives the place a nice, international flavor. That, along with the Spanish that’s freely spoken by the staff and patrons. When servers greet customers with a hearty “hola!” it’s no cheesy marketing gimmick.
The menu at La Tiendita is fairly short, but all bases are covered. Choices include such standards as enchiladas, tacos, burritos and tamales, which are handmade and served in corn husks. They also serve pozole, a pork soup made with hominy, and the famous hangover cure, a beef tripe soup called menudo.
The most memorable meal I ever ate in Mexico was an ear of roasted corn I bought at a roadside stand. Drenched in lime juice and red pepper, I can still recall its vibrant, sunny flavor.
That’s what the food at La Tiendita reminded me of. The sauces are subtle, letting the fresh flavors of the food shine through.
The tamales are particularly good. They come in five versions: beef, chicken, pork, vegetable and a dessert rendition made with raisins, walnuts, pineapple and brown sugar. The sweet tamales are traditionally served on holidays, so they are truly a treat.
Tamales offered in restaurants usually lean toward pork. I was anxious to sample the veggie tamale on my combination plate. It was filled with chopped carrots, potatoes and peas. It might sound fairly dull, but wrapped in the cornmeal, the tamale had a vivid, fresh flavor.
Tacos at La Tiendita are simply meat folded in the excellent handrolled flour tortillas. No lettuce, no cheese. Filling choices include chicken, beans, carne asada, which is grilled steak, or beef tongue (lengua). Diners can dress these soft shell sandwiches up by adding salsa.
And the salsas at La Tiendita are exceptional. Chips come with two versions, a fiery red salsa that will bring tears to the eyes of most gringos, and a mild, fresh salsa, packed with tomatoes, onions and cilantro.
Burritos can be stuffed with a variety of fillings including chicken mole, a shredded beef called barbacoa that is cooked using no spices, and carne asada, which is grilled steak. Those fillings are also served as plates, which come with rice and beans.
At a recent lunch, I sampled the chicken mole, boneless pieces of chicken in a mild, savory sauce usually seasoned with chocolate. While it was enjoyable, the dish didn’t have the bittersweet edge that I usually associate with mole sauce.
The beans, whole pinto beans in a mild sauce, are a refreshing change of pace from refrieds.
My dining companion was impressed with her chile Colorado burrito. It was generously filled with nicely seasoned shredded beef.
If you are a fan of rice pudding, save room for this classic comfort food. The preparation isn’t exactly like the creamy pudding grandma made, but rice cooked in sweet milk. It’s much lighter and not as sweet as the traditional rice pudding, but just as satisfying. It’s covered with a sweet syrup, cinnamon and big pieces of walnut. A generous portion is a mere $1. An amazing bargain.
Overall, the prices are remarkable. The most expensive items - the plates, including the combination plate with three items - are $4.75. A la carte dishes such as tamales, enchiladas and tacos are $1.20 apiece. Portions are not huge but should satisfy most appetites.
La Tiendita also serves breakfast on weekends.
The breakfast offerings include the mother of all Mexican breakfasts, huevos rancheros, along with several additional egg preparations.
I enjoyed scrambled eggs with verde sauce, made with tomatillos (Mexican green tomato) and mild green chiles. They were served with wonderful sliced potatoes that had been roasted in the oven and beans. I scooped up a mixture of eggs, potatoes and beans with my tortilla to create a sort of breakfast taco. My dining partner ordered the huevos rancheros and was disappointed that the eggs were overcooked.
Another minor complaint was that the menu offered orange juice, but the waitress asked if we minded Tang instead. It’s this type of quirkiness that can either be irritating or endearing, depending on how you look at it.
One shortcoming worth mentioning is the state of the restrooms. On several visits, the women’s room was in need of some attention and on one occasion, the light was burned out in the men’s room.
xxxx La Tiendita Address: 3150 N. Division, 325-0407 Meals: Mexican Prices: all items under $5 Days, hours: Mondays through Thursdays 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Fridays 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturdays 8 a.m.9 p.m. and Sundays 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Alcohol: Mexican and domestic beer Smoking: no Reservations: yes Credit cards: MC, V Personal checks: yes
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